I will be tracking Bertie and Humfrey’s London to Cape Town trip on Facebook from the 23rd December 2017 – on this day 79 years ago, on Friday the 23rd December 1938 they departed from London on their epic journey. I will put up regular posts showing their progress in miles on their journey to Cape Town and you will be able to follow their progress on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/caperecord/
Up until now I have been editing and condensing each chapter. In this chapter I have decided to release it in it’s original format to give readers an idea of the detail that Bertie put into every moment of their epic journey.
We left Arak, to the cheers of our friend, the lorry driver, and monsieur and madame the bordj-keepers, at 5 minutes past nine. We had put down our bed before leaving, much to the delights of the assembled populace, and Humfrey retired to rest as soon as we started, as it was my turn to drive. Directly I took the wheel and set off through the darkness, my attack of acute misery left me and I quite enjoyed my first hours driving. The first 27 miles from Arak is a long gradual climb from the bottom of the gorge of Arak up to the plateau whence the track eventually climbs up into the Hoggar Mountains, in the centre of which is situated Tamaureasset our next objective. The first 27 miles was not easy driving. The gorge here is very narrow, its precipitous sides which tower almost vertically over 2000 feet were only about a quarter of a mile apart. Each of these crossings need a considerable degree of care as the drop or the bank onto the sand might be as much as a foot high with a similar climb out on the other side. There are many small trees darted here and there and the track winds in and out of these in quite bewildering fashion.
I found quite enough to keep me awake, but in one way this sort of driving was preferable to that of the night before: there were plenty of objects for the beam of the lamps to strike and therefore they appeared to be giving much more light. We had agreed before we started we would make no attempt to drive fast for, as this was our second continuous nights driving, we considered it imperative to ensure, as far as possible, that the one who was not at the wheel should get undisturbed sleep. I therefore made no effort to increase the speed and kept going at a very comfortable pace.
When you reached the top of the gorge, you felt above the level of the bordj of Arak, the country opened out and the character of the track alters completely. It becomes rocky instead of sandy and care is needed to avoid large boulders but it is, on the whole, much easier driving. As the driving became easier, I was able to lean back in the comfortable seat and, partially at least, relaxed. This brought on that terrible feeling, the bane of long-distance driving, longing to sleep. One’s head droops, one’s eye lids begin to close and vision becomes misty as one’s tired eye muscles are unable to hold objects in focus. To try to see clearly, one screws one’s eyes up tightly and, on opening them again, all is well. In a minute the horrible effect reappears: objects are visible but not clearly; they have hard outlines and it is hard to distinguish what they are. One’s eyelids droop and they feel so heavy that it seems as though no superhuman effort could ever persuade them to lift again. Fiercely one forces one’s eyes to open and savagely one attempts to focus to sharpen the blurred outlines of things: over and over again the hideous symptoms repeat themselves and the grim struggle goes on. The struggle to keep awake: the struggle to see. It needs experience to tell whether the attack of sleepiness is only a passing phase possible to fight through and out to the other side to wakefulness, or whether it will defeat one in the end. If the latter, it means that this one is conquered and suddenly one drops off to sleep, to be awakened, as with a resounding crash, the car left to itself, strikes some object or, may be one drops off to sleep never to awaken again. Almost every year: the Monte Carlo Rally, which entails 4 nights continuous driving and the winter condition in Europe, some car is wrecked; someone is killed, owing to the driver falling asleep at the wheel. If, in the light experience, the driver knows that he will be unable to fight down the longing to sleep, there is only one thing for him to do, and it is madness not to do it: it is that madness which has caused the deaths in the Monte Carlo Rally. The thing to do is to awaken one’s sleeping co-driver and hand over to him while one satisfies this craving for sleep. A few minute sleep will do it and every long-distance driver must learn to make this decision without hesitation as soon as he recognises that it is and unsafe for him to continue. I know, and understand, the reason why some drivers will not do this obvious thing. It is the feeling that they are showing the white feather, are doing something cowardly and unworthy of their manhood, acts, waking their partner and saying frankly “I can’t go on. I’m too sleepy too be safe.” They are wrong, bitterly wrong. It is far more commendable to know when one cannot continue and admitted, then to go on driving and cause an accident. It is absolutely necessary for partners on a really long day and night drive to have complete confidence in each other and to know that if the driver is dangerously sleepy, he would awaken the one sleeping. Without this confidence there is disquietude when one is not driving which saps the reserves of endurance that it is so necessary to conserve on a long journey. Confidence in each other then is an absolute essential to success in any undertaking such as ours. Humfrey and I had absolutely, complete confidence in each other in this respect, as, I may add, in all others! I was quite confidence in my own mind that my present attack of sleepiness was only temporary one and would pass off. Indeed, after about 20 minutes of torture it did so: my eyes cleared and I was able to see properly again. Meantime the track was still climbing and eventually at 2500 feet the “field of gray stones”, as we called it. I do not pretend to know what this really is but the name we have given it describes its appearance quite accurately. Stones, varying in size from six inches high to two or three feet, lie about all over this peculiar area: the stones are not touching each other, still less are they piled upon one another. They are for the most part from 3 to 6 feet apart, spread over rocky ground as though they had been scattered by some mammoth sower. All these stones are of a dark grey colour and, and seen in the light of the headlamp beams, the “field of gray stones” presents a curiously dismal and eerie appearance. The track has been cleared of stones, but it winds about in serpentine fashion to dodge the largest boulders which it was presumably found to be too much trouble to move. We had lost a lot of time in the 60 miles from Arak, mainly because the schedule was based on covering this stretch by daylight instead of in the dark: schedule speeds were always lowered when darkness fell as my experience has been that it is far too dangerous to attempt to drive fast across the desert in the darkness. At the field of gray stones Humfrey woke: I had done a little more than my two hours and I felt overpowering sleepiness coming over me again. He awakened refreshed from his good sleep and I took his place on the comfortable Dunlopillo cushions. Rolling myself up in the rug and my leather coat, for it was very cold now and I would be colder when we climbed higher to the mountains, I settled down to my first sleep since my two hours or so of troubled slumber on the steamer before reaching Algiers. This was nearly 48 hours ago and I was very sleepy.
At first I found my position in the car produced a very odd effect. It seemed the car was shaking from side to side but in about ten minutes I had got used to this and dropped into a heavy sleep, from which I did not wake till I found the car stationary and Humfrey pulling at my shoulder. I woke with a start and sat up immediately. One’s first thought on being awakened suddenly when traveling like this is that something has happened and I probably said “What’s up?” Humfrey said that he was frightfully sleepy and asked if I was all right to drive. I replied that I was perfectly all right and took over the wheel. I found that he had done his two hours and he told me before he went off to sleep that the track was sandy and that it was quite difficult to keep in touch with the cairns. I started off, feeling very fit and refreshed after my good sleep, and found conditions exactly as he had said. There will wide stretches of deep soft sand that meant rapid changes down to the third, or even second, gear and full throttle. At first I was cautious over these gear changes fearing to wake Humfrey, but as he showed no sign of stirring I became less careful. These patches of soft sand give one the most peculiar feeling, particularly at night, as the change in the appearance of the surface is not noticeable. One is running comfortably along on smooth hard sand at perhaps 40 mph when suddenly the whole car swerves to sink, and giant hands clutch at the wheel is so that one’s speed diminishes alarmingly and quite suddenly, while the tyres give outs that queer shrill scream “Wheee Wheee”. Instantly one becomes alert, makes a snap change – down to third and stamps savagely on the accelerator (there is no fear of getting wheel-spin on sand so one can use full throttle); but at the same time staring anxiously ahead to try and pick the best course. It is really rather exhilarating, the sensation of racing across the deep holding sand with the screaming tyres singing their song and the engine giving out that hard deep notes that betokens a wide throttle opening. But it is hard work, because one can even let one’s attention stray for one instances, and all the time one’s eye on those little heaps of stones that of the only guide to one’s direction. After time, I saw tracks of the lorries tyres -probably the lorry of our friend at Arak – and noticed that sometimes, while I was keeping near to the cairns he seemed to have wondered away so that his tracks disappeared from the fan spread by the lamps. I noticed that whenever this happened it seemed that I came to deep sand and gradually became clear to me that as he had come along here in daylight he had of course been able to see these stretches and swerved to avoid them. I was determined to experiment and the next time that his tracks swung away from the cairns I followed them, being careful, of course, to keep out of his actual wheel-marks – one never drives in someone else’s tracks in the desert for fear that he may have stuck or formed a ‘graveyard’. Immediately I had done is, I regretted it. It was horrible to feel that the guiding cairns were away somewhere else on my left and that it was quite impossible to find them again unless the track I was following led back to them. I must explain the statement because it might seem to anyone having no experience desert driving that all I had to if I wanted to get back to the cairns, knowing them to be on my left, would be to turn to the left and keep on going until I came to the line of cairns. It seemed obvious to do this is an almost certain way of getting lost and remember that is getting lost in the desert may mean death. The reason that this apparently obvious course is almost equivalent to committing suicide is this. Suppose, as in the present case, I am following a pair of tracks with the certain knowledge that the cairns are perhaps quarter of a mile away to my left and I decide that I will leave the tracks and return to the line of cairns. With the idea in mind I swing away to the left and immediately I lose the tracks I am absolutely lost. I do not know whether I am going straight or round in a circle, I do not know whether I am traveling north, south, east or west, I do not know in which direction the cairns lie, and worse still I do not know in which direction the track I was following lie now. I am absolutely, utterly, completely lost.
If this dreadful thing does happen, that one suddenly loses both the cairns and the tracks one has been following, there is any one thing to do. Remember that you cannot stop and think things out for if you are traveling over soft sand a minimum be speed of say 20 mph is necessary to prevent sinking in the sand, so one has to think while traveling. The only safe course to follow in a case like this is to turn one steering wheel say 30 degrees and hold it absolutely rigid at that. By this means one will, in due course, completed a circle of large radius which will bring one back to one’s own tracks in the sand. On striking them turn immediately and follow them religiously until one reaches again the point at which one turned off the tracks and one had been following before, cling close to these and don’t lose them. There’s no other way to avoid being completely lost and as I said, to the lost in the Sahara is to be dead.
On a Rolls-Royce trip, one night in a moment of carelessness I did this very thing. I suddenly realised I had lost the cairns, but was pretty sure they were on my left, so I made a wide circle in that direction holding the steering wheel absolutely firm and rigid. In time I completed the circle and came back to my tracks in the sand without finding the cairns. I was still convinced that they were on my left so I made a wider circle and soon enough I found the blessed cairns and mighty glad I was to see them! If I had lost my head and gone wondering about looking at the line of cairns, well one’s bones might now be whiting under the Sahara sun.
After this interruption let us return to where we were before the diversion occurred. I said that I regretted following the lorries tracks in the sand as soon as I lost sight of the cairns: nevertheless I stuck to them and after a mile or so they returned to the line of cairns not having led me into any very unpleasant places, so when they diverged again I followed them, acting on the theory that they must be some reason invisible to me why our friend on his lorry driving over this route in daylight had left the mark track. So my turn of driving passed: sometimes it was difficult, sometimes easy, that we were at any rate progressing. At last the bordj of In Salah loomed up by the side of the track. This is a comparatively new rest house built by the French and, though it exactly resembles, both in outline and in interiors, apartments in a real desert fort, in point of fact it was only built as a rest house and not as a military post, and has never been occupied as such. I passed In Ekker without stopping and, glancing at the dashboard clock and doing a rapid sum, I found that we had lost 80 minutes on our schedule in the 144 miles we had come from Arak. Well, considering that we had expected to be at In Ekker just after nightfall, that we had actually driven the whole way in the darkness and that we had been traveling quietly in order to ensure as far as possible comfortable rest for the off-duty man, it was perhaps not so bad we had always found this is a slow part of the Sahara crossing, particularly the early part when the track is winding and difficult.
Soon after passing In Ekker, I awoke Humfrey and handed over to him as I was beginning to feel sleepy again. It was now 3 o’clock in the morning and bitterly cold. We had reached an altitude of 3000 feet and were still gradually climbing: we should continue to climb until we reached Tamauresset,100 miles on, by which time we should have reached our summit of 4200 feet.
I wrapped myself in everything I could find, lay down on the bed and was asleep in a minutes while Humfrey drove steadily forward through the night. As I slept, we passed to the village of In Amquel, the only purely native village between El Golea and Agadez. It is a queer place, as I remember it from our previous journey. It lies in the small depression in the mountains and past it runs a little water course, presumably fed at times of rain – for rain falls with some frequency here in the altitudes – from high peaks surrounding it. The little stream is usually dry but I imagine that it accounts for the presence of the village at this spot, as the nearby, infrequent, water supply makes the soil fertile.
In the bed of the stream reeds grow thickly and from these reeds the village is built. The huts are built of reeds covered with mud and they are thatched with reeds. There are in all, I suppose, about 14 of these huts and the passage between the two rows of them is so narrow that the overhanging eaves of thatch brush against the side of the car, I should like to congratulate the Town Planning Committee of In Amquel on their foresight in planning the entrances to their huts on the side away from the street! (British town-planning authorities, please copy!!) Though I can hardly think that the amount of traffic through In Amquel, the two vehicles a week, is sufficient to warrant this cultured modern feature! I was still sleeping soundly when Humfrey shook me. “Tamanraaset in sight”, he said. I shook off the numerous covering that I had spread over myself and sat up. It was daylight and all around us the high peak of the Hoggar Mountains towered black and forbidding against the clear blue of the dawn sky. It was very cold; the thermometer fitted inside the car registered just over 40 degrees.
We were travelling down the long straight sandy track which runs towards the town, between a double line of round red sandstone pillars, probably 3 feet in diameter and 20 feet high, that the French, true artists that there are, have erected as a kind of triumphal avenue leading into the town. It always gives me a thrill, I don’t quite know why, when one enters this broad avenue of trees (was the French designer thinking of the long avenues of trees on the great national highways of his beloved France, near the 2000 miles away?) and races between them over the smooth sandy road towards little town. Tamaurasset is a jolly place. The houses, built in the Moorish style, are of red sandstone: the wide streets are gay with flowers and trees, real green trees, are set in the garden. There’s plenty of water in Tamaurasset and desert sand, freely watered becomes very fertile. There’s the large French garrison here, housed in a fine red sandstone fort within the town and, in consequence, there is much social life. The climate, owing to the high elevation, is pleasant: it is hard, of course, but there is always a breeze, and nights are cool. Frost is not unknown. There is in addition an excellent Trausatt hotel, though we did not have time to visit it on this occasion.
It was 6.20am when we drove to the Shell pump, to where 3 Shell attendants were sleeping on the sand beside it. Again an evidence of the far reaching influence and perfect organisation of the Shell Company. While one of these attendants raced off to wake the Arab superintendent, the others expeditiously filled our tank from the pump. When the superintendent arrived running, he apologised for his absence but said that he had waited for us for some hours last night, as he had been advised that we should arrive at ten o’clock.
He had then retired to his house near by leaving 3 men at the pump with instruction to call him when we came. We assured him as we quite understood, and that we were more than satisfied. We filled up, examined oil and water levels -, took a drink of brandy, we were shivering with cold, and set of on our next stage of 244 miles to In Guezzan. We stopped for 12 minutes at Tamaurasset, for such is record-breaking, alas!
Here’s an extract in Bertie’s hand writing.
It was now 12.53 and the sun was high in the sky: the heat was terrific and the glare from the sand seared our eyes. We decided to try a new gadget which Humfrey had got Wolseley to make up. It consisted of 4 strips of green celluloid about six inches deep and the width of half of each of these strips was fitted with two suckers the idea being that they should be stuck on the screen, two above the line of sight and two below, so that we would look through the narrow slot. They were an instantaneous success and as we looked through the slot between the two green strips we congratulated ourselves on a complete solution of the glare problem. Sun glasses are a fearful nuisance as they impaired visibility to such an extent as to be almost dangerous where it is absolutely necessary to have really clear vision in order to avoid obstacles. We never used them at all on this journey but made continual use of our invaluable green celluloid strips.
The first few miles after leaving In Salah were much like the last 15 miles into it, deep soft sand and dunes, but here and there interspersed with patches of gravel, which promised better things for the future and we were feeling very cheerful, rather dirty, as we had not had a wash since we left El Golea.
After about 27 miles, the surface improved and we were able to get along better. This position appears in our log-book as “Get on the gravel” and readers may be amused to hear the names we have given to the next four logging points. They are “Descent escarpment (zig zag)” “Well on left”, “Climb slate hillocks”, and “High cliff with two Cairns on top”. They are, of course, no villages so one is reduced to using this kind of language in order to identify places and distances. We descended the “escarpment (zig-zag)” and passed to be “Well on left” and it was at “Climb slate hillocks” that we struck trouble. The slate hillocks are noticeable for the fact that the slate outcrop – it may not be slate but it looks like it! – does not lie flat on the ground and like the tiles on the roof they stand up on edge, so to speak; thus presenting the unfortunate tyres with a series of sharp cutting edges to run on. Actually when we examined the damage we saw that the tyre had been cut crosswise of the tread with deep a gash right through the canvas. The heat was sweltering and a thermometer inside the car registering 102 degrees, when we set to work to change the wheel.
Bertie explains the difficulty they had in trying to get their “much prized hydraulic jack” to raise the car to change the tyre. It was not able to do the job. The next option was to unpack the rear locker of the car where they had packed a “small triple lift screw jack” which they had packed for emergencies. It too was not “man enough” to do the job. The problem was the tyre was flat and the car had to be lifted high enough to fit the new tyre.
There were problems with the jack and finally they built a ramp of stones that the car was pushed up – Bertie said “we must build up a ramp of stones: then we must push the car off the jack, and drive it along so that the punctured wheel climbs the ramp: then jacket up as far as we can with a rock under the jack and demolish the ramp so that the wheel will be suspended high enough.” He explains in great detail how they eventually “lifted the wheel (which with its monster tyre weighed 82 pounds) in that terrific temperature and with the tenderness of a man handling a baby; was a grisly difficult job but at last it was done and the wheel on. We went to lower the jack but found that this last lift was its expiring efforts and nothing would induce it to budge. We weren’t going to let a little thing like that bother us now and we pushed the car off the jack again without a semblance of caution. The thing was bust anyhow, so what did it matter?
After repacking the car both Humfrey and Bertie were “not looking our best” and they decided to wash using water from the water tanks – with soap and plenty of rags.
Bertie explains the fear they had of sunstroke and why they kept their shirts on “It was too risky to take off our shirts – one can get sunstroke in the desert through one’s spinal column, as we both knew”
The wheel change had taken 45 minutes and they now had 1400 mile from Kano where they were to collect their new tyres but with no usable jack.
From traveling in the Sahara numerous times, there were many places they passed and never actually went to see and Bertie pondered about these places: “At last we reached our next logging points “Gap in hills, Monument on left” this is the sort of thing that makes record-breaking so exasperating. This is the fifth time that Symons has passed this intriguing object, yet he has never been able to spare time to investigate it. Nevertheless, there it stands, open for examination. The rocky hills, perhaps 200 feet was so in height, are broken in a kind of saddle and they perched on another hill in the distance and visible through the gap is what is unmistakably a monument. It is a tall obelisk of stone; in memory of what or of whom? Shall I ever know? I wonder.”
The track changed in character from sand to slate, outcrops to the “fech–fech” and at times driving at 15m.p.h. over large loose stones where conditions were “altogether too bad”.
At the gorge of Arak they came to a tiny fortress that was “converted to cater for more peaceful needs, nestling close under the 2000 feet high cliffs at the deepest part of the gorge. Travelers arriving here are greeted by a cheery Frenchman and his wife who are only too anxious to do all they can to make this a little bit of France. They greeted us with enthusiasm; they were of course expecting us some hours earlier having been warned by the Shell Company at Algiers of the probable time of our arrival, though once again we had beaten the depannage telegram. We replenished our petrol tank, no oil or water being needed, and then proposed to embark on a job which we viewed with some distaste. For some time we had been gradually becoming convinced that our steering was getting stiff and we had decided that when we reached Arak we would give it some attention with the grease-gun. Here Humphrey’s proverbial knack of falling on his feet to which I have already referred, came to the fore. We were definitely not looking forward to the job. We were tired and hot and dirty and hungry and very, very thirsty. We wanted a wash and food and a drink. We did not want to lie about under a motor car pushing grease into the nipples. We didn’t have to.
Parked in the yard of the bordj, there was a colossal French lorry which had arrived that day from Tamaurasset on its journey with its driver, a typical burly French man, with all the not exaggerated fabled politeness of his race, put himself immediately at our disposal when he heard what we proposed to do. He organised the whole thing, showed us where to place the front of the Wolseley over a pit, produced from his lorry the world’s largest grease-gun, ordered us off and, descending into the pit, and got to work.
We were due at Arak, according to a new timing, at 3:05 p.m. and we had actually arrived at 7.28, so we were now four hours and 23 minutes behind our schedule. When I told Humphrey this he was filled with horror. “Good Lord!” he said, “what time were we due at Kano?” “At 1.15” I replied. “And what time have we got to be there to beat the Algiers Kano record?” he asked. I did the necessary sums.” Before 5:30 p.m. tomorrow,” I said. “Good heavens” he exclaimed after thinking for a minute or two, “then if we are four hours and 23 minutes late now and do our average from here, we shan’t be there till 5.38. That’ll be too late.” I smiled at his face of consternation. “Don’t worry” I said. “We are quite all right. You see, I had allowed for a stop of 4 1/2 hours, at Tamaurasset, as it’s no use leaving there before 2:30 a.m. (I will explain why later) “So it means that instead of being four hours and 23 minutes late here, we can cut the stop at Tamaurasset to a quarter of an hour and we shall therefore only be a few minutes down on schedule.”
I explained carefully. “If we are here at nine o’clock, we shall be there at five o’clock tomorrow morning, and can leave at 5.15 after refueling. Now on our new time from Algiers, we’re due to leave Tamaurasset 4.30 so we shall only be three-quarters of an hour down, and well ahead of record”
He lightened up at once. “I thought probably it wasn’t as bad as it sounded”, he said “I know your trick of keeping secret reserves of time some way up your sleeve.” I laughed. “Anyway,” I said “we haven’t done so badly, considering the awful conditions. We had come 1014 miles and have taken 33 1/2 hours, so we had averaged roughly 30 mph including all stops.”
Humfrey and Bertie returned to the car to find the lorry driver had greased the steering and he had cleaned the windscreen. He commented that “It had been a pleasure to meet the messieurs” and to be able to do a little to help them; he was, in fact, more than proud to have been of some small assistance to them in their so “sportif” undertaking. In the end, he almost made us feel as though we have been doing him a favour in allowing him to work for an hour on our car!” He also informed them that the track to Tamaurasset was in very good condition which “was a very excellent piece of news”.
It was 4.23am, of course, still dark when we left El Golea. It was my turn to drive so Humfrey said “I’m going to put down the bed and try and get some sleep.” He did so, wrapped himself up in the stolen rug referred to before and was promptly asleep. It was very cold, as it can be in the desert at night, but I was quite sure that, in view of Desuoyer’s as to the state of the track, I should be quite warm enough soon (desert driving is very hot work!) so I did not feel it necessary to wear an overcoat.
Immediately I found that what we had been told was quite correct. The track seemed to have disappeared altogether: it was littered with debris and stones and buried under heaps of sand which was not easy to negotiate in the darkness while at the same time keeping a sharp look-out for the cairns. Soon after leaving El Golea the track runs, or used to run, beside a ‘shott’ or dried up lake. These shotts are features of the northern Sahara: they were originally huge shallow lakes formed in the courses of the rivers which used to run northwards to the Mediterranean from the Hoggar Mountains. When the Sahara became desiccated, the rivers ceased to flow and these ‘shotts’ were left: in the first place filled with salt or brackish water but now dry and covered with a layer of salt. It is from the shotts that is obtained the salt which is the keenest need of the dwellers in hot deserts and which formed an important part of the merchandise carried by the Sahara caravans. Shotts are duplicated in the South African desserts by what are called ‘pans’.
Bertie describes in great detail how at the beginning of each season – in October, lorries of the SATT went out to see what the roaming desert winds had done during the heat of summer and then to make alterations to the route. Driving was quite challenging and Bertie was very conscious of avoiding rocks that could damage the tyres – as had happened during the Rolls Royce expedition.
The Dunlop Company had gone to great lengths to ensure they had no tyre troubles on the Wolseley Cape Record journey. There was only an incident when one tyre cover was cut nearly in half by a sharp slate outcrop – more details in a later chapter.
Symons has twice been to Timbuktu by this western route – known as the Tamezuft – over which a bus service is operated by Compagnie Transsataiienne, – but he prefers the Hoggar Mountain route, first because the scenery is more varied (the Tamezuft route has one 600 mile stretch of nothing but bare sand) and secondly, and far more importantly to us from the point of view of making a second run, it is 600 miles shorter from El Golea to Kano.
As Symons was sleeping peacefully when we past it, no time was entered in the log for Timimona Corner and I drove along slowly and as gently as possible in order not to wake him. The track was quite undoubtedly, as Desuoyens had told us at El Golea, in a very much worse condition than it had been 2 years before and I became convinced, as I went on that we were going to lose more time.
Once there was day light travelling became much easier. They passed Fort Minibel which was one of the old disused desert forts which have now been turned into a boarding or rest house – for travelers. Humfrey made the necessary entries in the log book and took over the wheel. (Oh, how I’d love to find the log book.) They restore the passenger’s seats to its uprights position as Bertie had no inclinations to sleep.
We had left El Golea at 4.25 a.m. being then, one hour 55 minutes behind schedule. We had come 89 miles to Fort Minibel and our schedule allowed 2 hours 10 minutes for this. This was the time we had taken on the Rolls Royce for when the track had been hard and good, and we had been able to average 41 m.p.h.: now under the infinitely worse conditions we had taken 2 hour 45 minutes and average only 33m.p.h. This meant that we were now two hours 30 minutes behind schedule.
We had now reached the dreary desolate waste of the Tademait proper which stretches for 120 miles in all its bleak hideousness. It is the sea of black stones and the clear track runs straight to the horizon so that here at least the cairns are quite unnecessary. When we crossed it before we had simply become bored to death with its dull ugliness. Now we found it any thing but dull! The
Unprecedented rain had apparently penetrated the iron hard soil beneath the stones and the buses passing over the track while it was still wet and soft had cut deep ruts in the surface, ruts a foot or more deep. The sun had then baked these ruts iron hard. No one would call our crossing of the Tademait dull! It was the continual struggle to keep the wheels from being trapped in one or the other of the cavernous ruts, which criss-crossed each other madly where some vehicles coming along while the ground was still soft, had rushed from side to side to try to avoid being caught in the previous tracks.
No, crossing the Tademait Plateau under these conditions was very far from dull! Humphrey wrenched and struggles with the kicking steering wheel as he used every atom of his skill to choose the best path: sometimes in the middle so that if our course could have been plotted, it would have appeared somewhat like that of a war-time naval convoy! One single mistake might have meant hours of delay or a wrecked car. As he was compelled to concentrate all his attention on the track immediately in front of our wheels, I kept a sharp look out ahead for ‘graveyards’ or similar major obstacles so that I would sometimes say to him, ”Look out, there’s a graveyard 200 yards ahead on the right side,” in order that he could begin to work over to the other side and not be suddenly confronted with this on the path he was following. It wasn’t at all dull, but we were both very annoyed at what we felt was a hideous waste of time.
We were very pleased with ourselves and the good Wolseley and we thoroughly enjoyed our breakfast. It was now 10 o’clock in the morning and the sun was very hot, so that it is inadvisable to venture outside the car without sun helmets. So intense is the sunlight that if one dares to expose the bare head, even for a moment, to it one goes down with sunstroke as if one is clubbed: indeed, in an open car with the normal type fabric Lord! it is absolutely necessary to wear a sun helmet all the time for the fear of getting sunstroke through the fabric. We sat in the sunshine drinking our hot coffee brought from El Golea in a thermos flask and eating tinned bacon, finishing up with jam and Ryvita. A very good meal and, invigorated by our 24 minutes stop, we resumed out journey with Humfrey at the wheel.
This is Bertie’s description of the Sahara:-
Sand, red sand, rising in softly swelling dunes, as far as the eye could reach, nothing but sand, nothing. It was the moment we had both been eagerly awaiting: the desert, the real Sahara, lay below and our fantastic night journey over the Tademait was quite forgotten, for the long distance traveler must learn to forfeit past troubles, anxieties, and fears as soon as they are over and to be ever living in the present. We descended the escarpment and immediately, for the first time, we felt the full power of soft sand clutching at our wheels like some giant hand.
The musical singing shrieks that the tyres give out on this type of surface is oddly fascinating and as I write these words I can hear them again that shrill note “Wheeee – Wheee” and the nostalgia of the desert, the fascination, that once experienced is never obliterated, grips me again for vast spaces I see again the brazen sky, the red sand, the limitless horizon and a taste on my lips of the sickly sweetness and smell in my nostrils of harsh spray of the desert dust that boils up behind the flying car in a mile-long tail. If the desert gets one, one never escapes every autumn till life leaves me, I shall feel again the drag of that is longing, for the desert has got into my blood.
Wolseley had prepared a dipstick for ‘Voortekker’ and Bertie describes it and the fuel consumption: Using the beautiful dipstick prepared for us by Wolseley’s marked both gallons and litres, we found, on working it out, that we were only doing about 14 1/2 miles to the gallon. We had not reckoned sufficiently that the enormous amount of low gear work we were compelled to do with our heavily overloaded car was going to increase out petrol consumption to such a figure, and it meant that, with our 31 gallon supply, we could only reckon on about 435 miles on our tank and one of our stages without refueling was 465 miles! Never mind, we should have to worry about that problem when it arose. Meanwhile, the car going so well, that we did not consider it is advisable to make any adjustments to the carburetors.
The Shell Company in London had made arrangements by which we merely signed for our petrol without paying cash and this obviate our having to carry large sums of money in all sorts of currencies, the arrangement standing for our whole journey except for crossing France. I may say how that the scheme worked perfectly and we never had any trouble anyway in getting our signature accepted. It was a great boon and the Shell organisation must be, as is undoubted is, superb for a plan of this sort to work over such vast distances. While filling our tank we had a drink and studied our position. We had gained 18 minutes on schedule over the last 62 miles from the escarpment and we were now just under three hours late. We then drove to the hotel to report our arrival and arrange the depannage telegram to be sent on to Arak, our next stage. The French manager wanted a chat with Humphrey, for he, poor devil, does not see many strange faces and this delayed us considerably while I sat in the car in the boiling sun, fuming with impatience to be off. At last Humfrey appeared, 37 minutes had been aimed at this stop.
This is an excerpt of the chapter where Bertie explains what travel in the Sahara was like in the early 1900s.
The immense desert of the Sahara stretches from the Nile on the East to the Atlantic Ocean on the West, and from the Algerian border on the North to a line running through Timbuktu, Agades, Lake Chad and Khartoum on the south, approximately 3500 miles from east to west and 1000 from north to south. It consists for the most part of sandy wastes, arid, hot and waterless: it is lacking in rivers, in vegetation and in tillable soil. These two latter find exceptions in the infrequent oases which vary in size from such an oasis as El Golea to the proverbial 2 date palms and a well. The Sahara is by no means as featureless as many people imagine: on our route, for instance, we shall pass directly through the Hoggar Mountains, an immense range attaining a height of some good feet and stretching for 120 miles from north to south and more from east to west. Parts of this range are still unexplored and it is said that from its mineral deposits were bought the jewels of the Queen of Sheba. Also on our route is the mighty gorge of Arak, along the bottom of which we shall travel. This varies in width from half a mile to 3 or 4 miles or more, the precipitous sides of the gorge rise to some 2000 feet sheer from the valley floor. The length of the gorge from end to end is approximately 50 miles which gives some idea of its magnificent grandeur and imposing size.
Along this gorge there is a dry river bed which is filled with a rushing torrent about once every 7 years. InJalah a small walled town containing a fort, a hotel, a Shell pump and probably about 30 native houses, is stated to be the driest place in the world: the average rainfall is 1/10th of an inch in 10 years! In addition to the Hoggar Mountains and the gorge of Arak, there are several escarpments, sheer cliffs sometimes 800 – 1000 feet high where the desert descends or rises to a different level. Shifting dunes of sand are also encountered almost every where throughout the Sahara, while lava rocks, sometimes rising to 100 feet or more sheerly from the flat sand, are often encountered so that the Sahara is not monotonous at any rate by the route we are using. The outlook is continually changing, sometimes nothing but a flat sandy waste, sometimes rocky, sometimes mountainous, but hardly dull.
Bertie then goes on to describe that the Sahara was first crossed by white men in 1823 and that camel caravans had traveled across it for centuries before this. The main commodities that were traded were salt in exchange for skins, ivory and various other commodities. In 1938 the camel tracks were still in existence and camel caravans still crossed the great desert from north to south and from east to west. An interesting fact in connection with camel caravans is the regular system of pilotage which prevailed. Bertie explains caravans would take on board a pilot who knew the locality and pilot them across the desert.
He goes on with an interesting account of how the French managed to control the Sahara by using Citroen motor vehicles and aeroplanes to map out the route transversing the desert. Bertie writes in the diary “how I would love that job!”
There was a trans-Sahara bus service which was inaugurated and continued while Bertie and Humfrey were transgressing the Sahara. This service, run by the SATT went from Algiers to Zindes in French Equatorial Africa and onto Kano in British Nigeria. The buses were Renaults specially built for the job. They had enormous wheels shod with single 12 inch tyres, carried 6 passengers and a fair load in goods and supplies. They were very slow and frightfully noisy. The service ran twice a week as far as Tamaurasset and once a week on to the south. It took 16 days to go from Algiers to Kano, and gauging by the jaded appearance of the passengers who they saw at Agadez on their previous journey, it seems it was a pretty sound trip. The bus of course stopped each night the fare was about ₤27 which includes hotel accommodation. The drivers of these buses were Frenchmen, specially pick for the job and real tough guys.
With regard to privately owned motor vehicles crossing the Sahara, Bertie explains that the French authorities wisely insist that certain formalities are observed, the manager of the hotel at El Golea being the person responsible for seeing that they are carried out. First he has to be convinced that somewhere aboard the vehicle there is stored 5 gallons of water per person and also that there is a supply of food sufficient to last the crew a minimum of 8 days.
Last, the owner of the vehicle is required to sign a ‘contract de depannage’ or ‘breakdown contract’ and to pay the necessary fee. This varies from 400 to 600 francs according to the horse power of the vehicle. The ‘contract de depannage’ is now compulsory. It used not to be so until a few years ago when two people, one an Englishwoman and a Belgium lost their lives in the desert and since then the authorities have made it obligatory for anyone insisting to cross the Sahara to sign this contract. The method of working is simple. When one is leaving, say, El Golea one is asked when one wants to be depannage. Suppose one starts at 6am on the Monday morning, one simply says “I wish to be depannage if I have not arrived at In Saleh” (the next desert post)”by 6pm on Tuesday”. Each of the desert posts is equipped with a wireless receiver and transmitter and a wireless message is thereupon sent from ElGolea to In Saleh, saying “Symons Wolseley left 6.00 depannage 18.00 Tuesday”. If then, delayed by a serious breakdown one has not arrived at InSaleh by 6pm on Tuesday the SATT undertakes that a rescue can/will be sent out from InSelah to find one and bring me in, so that, provided one has not wandered from the track, for the SATT naturally cannot undertake a search throughout the desert though they are pretty liberal about this one is bound to be rescued sooner or later, I say sooner or later because the cars used for this purpose are not exactly in the first flush of their youth and it is by no means unknown for the rescue car either to break down itself or to get stuck in the sand but it will arrive sometime. Still, that is the position and it is a valuable safeguard for the Sahara is a relentless enemy and one cannot afford to play the fool with it.
Remembering that if one should have lost oneself and consumed all one’s water, one cannot live more than 24 hours in the boiling heat and shadeless glare, the whole system is a wise precaution and the French government is to be complimented upon it.
This system works throughout the Sahara crossing, each post advising the next when you deguine depannage. I may say that in every case we arrived at the end of each stage before the wireless message announcing our departure from the beginning of it! But the ordinary traveller does not race across the Sahara quite as we did!
I have often been asked how we found our way. Resisting the temptation to carry on the tradition of traveler and make the most of difficulties, I do not purpose to do so.
The track is marked by little heaps of stones (“cairns”) about 18 inches high and 200 yards apart. It must be understood that these do not in any way constitute a road or path as there is just one line of them throughout: in the words they are meant purely as a guide to the direction and are not intended to be slavishly followed, though at night it is most inadvisable to miss one for fear that one may not find the next and so get lost.
It is very very easy to lose one’s sense of direction completely as there are very few landmarks to guide one. It needs a really sharp look-out at night to be sure that one does not miss a single cairn and at the same time to have one’s eyes glued to the track ahead in time to avoid obstacles in one’s path, such as gullies and rocks, and also to be ready for a lightening change down on sticking patches of deep soft sand.
The most awful dread is that of getting stuck in the sand; this may mean hours of work to get on the move again (it took Symons 23 hours on his first journey to Kano) and such a delay would mean goodbye to all hopes of beating Algiers – Kano record. So particularly at night, desert driving is nerve racking work when one is in a hurry.
Other features of Sahara travel will appear as we proceed on our way, so that we can now resume with our start from El Golea for the desert crossing proper.
Just to give you a sneak preview of how far Bertie and Humfrey are at Chapter 4. Thanks to my mum, Jenny McDowell, for the maps.
Ghardaia – El Golea
Bertie seemed to be a stickler for timing!
We left Ghardaia, refreshed by our good dinner, at 3 minutes past ten, winding our way slowly out of the sleeping town: and out on to the Southward track. In 14 miles, we climbed up a winding precipitous escarpment on to the plateau on which is the aerodrome of Ghardaia. We failed to see, in the darkness the next two logging points in our schedule, called respectively “Well 750 yards on right” and ”Hassi Gonselouda (well).” Humfrey was annoyed about this, but I ask you to be fair. How can one be expected to see a well 750 yards away from the track in the middle of the night? The track was in terribly bad condition and we felt that we were making very slow progress, but we kept reminding each other that we had noted on our previous trip that the track suddenly became very much better when we passed a signboard which said “Poste El Golea Limite”.
This did not, of course, mean that there was a speed limit: it merely meant that one had passed from the Ghardaia area to the El Golea area. We never saw this confounded post at all and were at last compelled to admit that we must have passed it without seeing it and, worse still, the track did not improve. Instead, we struck corrugations which had certainly not been here two years before. (This was when Bertie and Humfrey had done the Rolls Royce trip). We travelled on over those hideous ridges and hollows, and at last were cheered to recognize what appears in the log as HI DVAFOU WELL. It is simply a well surrounded by concrete walls, standing by the side of the rack, but we identified it simultaneously. I think that HI really should have been Hassi or well, but am not sure.
After they passed Hi Djafon, Bertie noted that steering column felt loose and they were able to rectify the problem- but Bertie was concerned about the loss of 18 minutes. This was their only involuntary stop between Algiers and Kano – over 2200 miles.
The expected improvement in the track did not take place and it began to be increasingly clear to us that something must have happened to alter conditions so much from our recollections of the past. When we came along here two years before in the Rolls Royce we had found a good, hard, smooth surface, so that we were able to travel mostly at quite high speeds 50 – 60m.p.h; whereas now we were struggling to keep up 38 to 40. We were becoming convinced that, if conditions throughout the desert crossing had deteriorated to this extent, it was going to be quite impossible even to approach the times we had set ourselves to accomplish. Anyway we were proceeding, even if not as fast as we wished.
We passed our next logging point “Onangle Track comes in on Left” and the remaining 60 miles to El Golea were simply a struggle against the rough broken condition of the track. At last we cautiously descended the steep winding stony hill to El Golea.
He goes on to describe the simple beauty of El Golea under the silver light of the full moon and how large El Golea is – over 5 – 6 square miles with the scent of millions of flowers. They booked into a magnificent hotel run by M. Desnoyens, an ex sergeant-major of the Foreign Legion and he is described as a ‘prince of hotel-keepers’.
Below is a picture from the Rolls Royce trip two years previously.
True, we were late. Our schedule time for arriving at El Golea was 10.35, as we had not intended stopping for dinner at Ghardaia but had a late supper here. It was now 3.53 in the morning. Our scheduled time for the 187 miles from Ghardaia was 5 hours and 5 minutes, whereas we had taken 5 hours and 50 minutes: 45 minutes slow of which 18 minutes had been lost replacing the clip on the steering column: still, we had averaged 32 m.p.h.
We had decided before arriving at El Golea that we would merely fill up with petrol and go straight on but when we broached this with Desnoyens he seemed so heartbroken that we agreed at least to drink some of the coffee he had prepared for us. We did not waste much time over it; we refilled with petrol, drank our coffee, ate some biscuits, and were off again in 32 minutes. We could now see our position again with reference to our schedule time. We had been due to leave El Golea at 11.50 p.m. whereas it was now 4.25a.m, so we were 4 hours 35 minutes behind schedule. We had travelled 572 miles since the day before and, excluding the 2½ hours lost before we left Algiers, we had only lost 2 hours. Not good, but not bad.
I should mention that, on our remarking to Desnoyen’s comment on the bad shape of the track, he told us that there had been very heavy and unprecedented rain and that the track further on was very much worse!
I must at this point say that I would love to know where Bertie’s book recording the predicted and actual times of departure and arrival is. Anybody got ideas about where one could start looking?
Chapter 4 is almost ready. I have also created a Facebook page where I’ll be adding interesting bits of information that I have come across about Bertie and Humphrey’s adventures prior to the Cape Record.
Below is a picture of Bertie and Humphrey on the England to Nairobi trip next to the Rolls Royce Phantom III.
It was Christmas morning and there was a huge crowd waiting on the white quay to greet the French ship from the home country. We soon picked out the tall figure figure of Captain de Malglaive waving frantically to us and, picking up our bags, we made our way along to the hold where our car was standing, nose to door, as if anxious to get ashore. We started the engine, to the consternation of member’s of the crew in the hold, in order to get it warm; then leaving Symons with the car, I went up on deck to meet de Malglaive, half English himself, and a confirmed Anglophile, served with the British Army in the war 1914 – 1918 and anything he can do for an Englishman is done with true Gallic enthusiasm.
Greeting him and his wife, I found that they had with them the Shell representative who had come along to ensure that the petrol tank wagon, which we had arranged to have waiting for us, was there and also the President of the Algerian Motor club in person.
We had asked de Malglaive to see if he could get a representative of this club to meet us and to sign officially our book showing the time we left Algiers, and the President had insisted on coming himself. A pretty sporting action to get out of bed at 6.30 on a Christmas morning for the sake of a couple of foreigners!
When we all got off the ship on the quay, we found Humfrey already there with the car, filling up from the petrol wagon. The customs people, warned in advance that we were in a hurry, waved aside at once any question of formalities (it was Vive le Sport! with them with a vengeance) and in 12 minutes from the time the ship tied up to the quay, that is at 10 o’clock exactly, we were off, petrol tank full to the brim, customs papers signed, the magnificent supply of sandwiches, fruit and salads and the two bottles of whisky supplied by Madame de Malglaive in their lockers, our book signed by M. le President. Twelve minutes! How long would it take a sporting Frenchman setting up a record say from Monte Carlo to John o Groat to get clear of his English port of arrival? Well, more than twelve minutes, I’m sure.
Though we were already exactly 2½ hours behind our schedule, we didn’t care. Was there not 2200 miles to make it up in before we reached Kano?
The car was running well and as they drove to Boufarik the first part of Algiers reminded them of the French Riveria – unfortunately they managed to get momentarily lost.
Beyond Bonfarik there began to loom up in the distance the great mass of the Atlas Mountains, where the road rises to 3900 feet and we were decidedly perturbed to overtake several cars carrying, most ominously, winter sports equipment. Did that foreshadow snow in the mountains?
When at last we emerged from the gorge and saw Medea ahead we had climbed in the 20 miles from Blida at 600 feet above sea level to Medea at 2800.
But what was not so satisfactory was the view in front. Indeed, it was most unsatisfactory. There was no possible doubt that snow lay ahead. Higher we climbed into deeper snow but still we said “It must be all right. That lorry had come through and it it can we can”. But I think we both had the same dreading idea at the back of our minds. It was “Suppose that lorry has tried to get through and has had to turn back.” In fact, Humphrey had just remarked “It looks to me as if only that lorry has been along here,” when suddenly as I cautiously rounded a shoulder on the mountain side, the track in the snow simply came to an end! In front of us across the road was a virgin snow drift 8 feet high blocking the road. So that was that!
Turning around wasn’t a nice business. The road was not wide, the snow was very deep, the hills all rose steeply on our left and on our right was a sheer drop of probably 1200 feet to the plain below. No, not nice. But at last, after many reverses, it was done and we slithered our way down again through the deep soft snow ruts.
After discussion they returned to the used snow ruts and after leaving the snow they returned to look for the sign post for ‘ARTHUR’ and ‘BOGHARI’ – their next stop. Once they left the snow (which cost them 24 minutes) the road was good and they were able to travel at comparatively high speeds. They passed through Boghari and past the Rocher de Sel at which point they had covered 77miles with an average speed of just over 50 m.p.h. Their next stop was Dielf where Humphrey tried to phone the hotel in Ghardaia to tell them their estimated ETA but he couldn’t get through and the stop cost them 9 minutes. The road to Layhonet was dull and uninteresting. Bertie describes Layhonet as ‘rather a jolly place’ in a Moorish style. Layhonet was an important junction of the many desert tracks. At which point they had lost 1 hour and 3 minutes – yet averaging just over 39m.p.h.
After leaving Layhonat one looks out ahead over the desert and here the road abruptly comes to an end: at times driving is bewildering for when one set of ruts has grown too deep to be used, vehicles turn aside and make a new set : these are in turn rejected when they have grown too deep, and so it sometimes happens that one will find six or seven sets of tracks, all travelling completely in the same direction, but sometimes criss-crossing wildly as if in effort to find the best surface.
Soon after leaving Layhonat darkness came down and there are no landmarks and one cannot see anything except the two beams from the headlamps lighting up the desolate trail in front. We passed Tibeut, called an Oasis, but as far as we have ever been able to discover, consisting of one stone building which looks like a fort and is actually a “bordj.” This is the name given to a rest-house where one can sleep and at some of these rest-houses there is a native who will provide food. I believe that the native the Tiheut is an excellent cook and can produce a first class meal (gazelle pie being his specialty) if advised by telegram before hand, but I am only speaking from hearsay as we have never had time to stop there. This is, of course, the hideous disadvantage of record-breaking: one never has time to stop and see anything.
They passed Tibeut 57 miles from Layhonet – having lost 5 minutes. Bertie describes how well the Wolseley was going and they were pleased with their average speed but the corrugations were indescribably awful! He gives an explanation as to why the speed appears high and a detailed description about corrugations – very funny reading (it must have been awful). They continues to Beniane, a jolly little oasis of palms trees and “one way traffic” and then to Ghardaia.
At Ghardaia the Shell filling station we found the native attendant still waiting, although it was 3½ hours after the time at which he had been told to expect us. We re-filled our petrol tank taking 25 gallons, only about 15½ miles per gallon instead of the 16½ we had hoped for. We had expected our fuel consumption to be considerably heavier than the normal for the 18 Wolseley. Normal being about 19 m.p.h. We hoped that even with our greatly increased load we should be able to do 16 to 16½, giving us a range of about 500 miles. The engine needed no oil and the radiator no water, so we went straight along to the hotel. The hotel, one of the excellent ones run by the Societe Algerian des Transport Tropicaux and called by the generic title of “Transalt”, is managed by an enthusiastic Frenchman who prides himself on being, as he says, “the best cook in the Sahara.”
Bertie goes into an elaborate description about Ghardaia and an interesting “sweet story” about how a princess saved it.
We had not expected to stop at Ghardaia as we had intended to go straight to Le Golea for dinner that night but he greeted us with delight. We were the only guests: it was Christmas night: we were hungry: splendid: in one all little minute an excellent dinner would be ready for us. And it was. I cannot remember all we had, but I know that turkey formed the backbone of the feast. Personally, I was stumped before the end but Humphrey, who has an excellent appetite, ploughed steadily through the numerous courses. We drank Algerian wine and coffee.
It was very cold on the boat and the sea was decidedly rough. However, we lay down in our cabin for a time and then went down to the saloon for a meal. The time thus passed quickly and when the boat entered the harbour at Boulogne where we found snow falling fast and the ground thickly covered. A pleasant prospect for an all-night drive! We were through the customs in a very few minutes, special arrangements having been made by the AA representative to get us off quickly and with a few gallons of petrol in our tank, we started off to find a garage where we intended to fill up our huge 31 gallon tank.
However, it was warm in the car and I should add that we were quite pleased in view of the intense cold, to find that somehow, in the hurry of loading the car, we had somehow come away with Mrs. Symon’s favourite travelling bag, which we had not intended to bring at all. This bag will figure at a later stage of our adventures.
As we were climbing the steep winding road into the old town of Montreuil the engine gave two or three splutters and stopped dead. Humfrey tried the starter but there was nothing doing, so out we had to get. We were distinctly annoyed because it was snowing hard and it was obvious that we were going to feel both very cold and very wet.
We took the cover off the distributor, thinking that the points might have stuck. It seemed to be all right so he replaced the cover and tried the starter. Off went the engine and, rather mystified, we proceeded, having got both wet and cold, as we had expected.
The cold was certainly awful and I was glad, when I took over the wheel at the end of two hours, to have something else to think of besides how infernally cold I was. It was about this time that ice began to form on the windscreen and we blessed our forethought in having brought with us a heated panel for the screen, without which it would have been quite impossible to see anything. The screen on the passenger side where there was no hot panel, was thickly encrusted with ice so that, Humfrey, after holding his hand against it for some time with no other result than getting his hand nearly frozen, said “Well, I can’t see anything so I may as well go to sleep.”
Above the windscreen of the car, Wolseley had mounted a thermometer. During the night the red liquid vanished into its bulb and did not reappear until after daylight.
We went steadily through the cold and the dark, till at last we were cheered by the breaking of the dawn. We then saw why it had been so appallingly cold in the car, for not only was the whole windscreen, except the small heated panel, covered with ice to a depth of about ¼ of an inch, but all the woodwork on the dash and doors was covered with ice also! Just about full daylight we stopped at Avalon for breakfast – it was 7.33 and we had come 300 miles in 9 hours. When we got out of the car we found that we were even colder than we had thought: we were both shivering and we each drank a large glass of brandy before we could think of breakfast while the kindly manageress of the hotel brought us hot bricks to thaw out our frozen feet. The thermometer in the courtyard of the hotel registered 12 degrees below zero, 44 degrees of frost! It was not surprising we had found it cold!
We found the hills from Saulien over to Chalon clear of snow but in a dangerously icy condition. However, we were in no hurry and eventually arrived at the Shell filling station about a mile south of Chalon. We had taken 2 hours exactly for the 76 miles. We never pass this place without a stop to greet our good friends, the filling station attendant and his wife. We had wired them from Avalon to expect us and we found them awaiting us on the doorstep. As usual, they greeted us with enthusiasm, and drew us into their warm room to participate of steaming hot black coffee and Vieux Marc. Of course they think we are quite mad but almost all French people of the lower classes think that that is the normal state of the Englishman! Then we went out to fill our petrol tank for the first time since leaving Boulogne 380 miles back. Our friends examined the car with the greatest interest, calling each other’s attention to the huge tyres, to the metal strips bolted to the back (to be used, if necessary for getting out of soft sand), to the equipment of the instrument board for French people love lots of instruments, and so on. Then aback into their house for more coffee and more Vieux Marc and then, invigorated by the delightful welcome of our old friends and, a little, by the influence of their excellent liqueur, we resumed our way south over the shining ice-covered roads.
It was soon after we had left the Chalon filling station that we became convinced that the engine was misfiring. We had both thought that we noticed it before – the misfire was very intermittent – but had tried to pretend to ourselves and each other that it was purely imaginary. But now there was no doubt about it, the engine would cut out completely for a second or so and then resume its normal smooth rhythm. At last, there was nothing for it but to stop and make an examination. If there was anything wrong, now was the time to find it. For two reasons:- One was that we had plenty of time to spare which we should not have once we started off from Algiers and the other was that if the engine were to misbehave like this when we were crossing stretches of soft land in the Sahara we should, inevitably come to rest. The resistance of deep sand is so tremendous that even a temporary misfire is quite sufficient to bring the car to a sudden stop. And a sudden stop might mean hours of digging to get on the move again.
So, on all accounts it was desirable to find out at once what was the matter. Actually we discovered, or rather, Humfrey discovered the cause almost immediately. Almost the first thing he looked at was the distributor, (we had in mind possible condensation inside from the cold) and he was poking about inside it with his finger when he exclaimed “Good Lord, what’s this?” He held up a small carbon brush which he had found floating about loose. We examined it: it was unbroken and, as far as we could see, unused. It did not belong to any part of the distributor that we could discover. The engine started and ran perfectly and from that moment until the end of our journey to Cape Town the engine never once misfired. I cannot explain how it got there, nor were the Wolseley Company to whom we showed it when we got home, able to account for its presence.
Our scheme therefore, was that our Wolseley, would be kept on the quayside until the last minute, then driven in and turned round with its radiator against the port in the ship’s side, all ready to be driven out again as soon as the ship docked. This plan was carried out to the letter, the laggard boat train arrived, and eventually, just over 2 hours later, we started on our 19 hour crossing of the Mediterranean.
We could therefore not expect to arrive at Algiers before 9.30 instead of 6.30. Very annoying! However, it couldn’t be helped and we cheered up as the African shore drew near, and we saw the brilliant sun glistening on the tiers of white houses climbing up the steep hill from the sea that make Algiers a vision to be remembered. And eventually we drew in to the harbour.